The Permissive Society
In a list of the most misleading phrases, those used to denote and characterise eras of social history would surely be near the top. The Naughty Nineties; the Roaring Twenties; the Age of Elegance; the Golden Days of this and that. Because, for the majority of people, the times thus described are nothing of the kind. The only one which rings true is The Hungry Forties, and that falls short of adequacy for a nineteenth-century decade of horrible starvation.
The present age is, of course, that of the Permissive Society. Like the other phrases, it suggests an infection of us all — abandon, indulgence, Rabelaisian laughter everywhere: the triumph of the libido. The truth, however, is that to most people it means only the goings-on they read about in the newspapers. The nude, the freaked-out and the orgiastic are a province touching slightly, if at all, the pattern of life in suburbs, villages, and Council estates. Few, really, of Greater London’s millions feel the breeze of the Swinging City. Indeed, how can it be otherwise? Permissiveness is there, but restraint on participation in it is imposed not by morality but by income. No man can be a sybarite on twenty pounds a week.
The participants in the Permissive Society, then, are the young and the better-off. For the latter, that is no change. “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure, the poor what gets the blame’’ is a handed-down line in a bawdy comic song where the joke is a rueful reference to the way things always are in class-divided society; who has not detected, in condemnations of permissiveness, annoyance because the pleasure is not now considered a private privilege of the rich? One may see how it was in Victorian England by reading, for example, the Radical novels of G. W. M. Reynolds where part of the attack on the upper class was continual reference to their debauchery. But it is only ten years since the prosecuting Counsel in the Lady Chatterley case asked the jury if they would wish their servants to read such a book. This vein of criticism of permissiveness reminds one of the old joke about the titled lady on her wedding night asking her husband if the working class enjoyed such raptures and responding to the affirmative with: “Well, you must try to have them stopped. It’s much too good for them.”
Perhaps something similar comes into the perturbation over the permissiveness of the young. It is natural enough for adults with low wages to be resentful of adolescents getting as much as they, able to buy seeming luxuries that a lifetime’s labour never knew — and, apparently, rebutting all the constraints and disciplines which were held to be moral because they were essential. Nor is there any doubt that adolescent life has altered in the last fifteen years. The discovery of the young as a huge consumer group, and the socio-economic pattern-changes which have made one generation’s work-life dissimilar to — and therefore uninfluential over — the next’s, have done that.
Thus, books and films which were “not suitable” for young people are now open to them. The non-conformity in dress and hair-styles has been the display of freedom from older influences. The true significance of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in their emergence ten years ago was rejection in clothes, hair and demeanour as well as in musical form and content of the established, taken-for-granted roles for young males in contemporary society. Moreover, the extensions of secondary and higher education, as parts of general adaptations in capitalism, have meant that young people are in this movement at the same time as they are still in school. This in itself has given fuel to the older generations’ resentment: here are youngsters, never earned a penny yet but behaving with adult licence — as if adulthood were certifiable only by going to work.
The commonest condemnation of “permissive” behaviour among the young is, curiously enough, an uninformed one. In this age, it is said, they bed together instead of waiting for marriage. Practically every week there is still some clergyman in the newspapers drawing attention to the illegitimacy figures and telling how many girls are in the family way when they marry at his church. Anyone who has studied family records — a genealogist, for example — can put right this delusion that it’s modern times. The parish churches’ own registers of baptisms, the only records of births before the State took over in 1837, are universally studded with what they called “baseborn” children. Stratford-on-Avon has an entry for the birth of William Shakespeare’s child, five months after his marriage. Whatever may be different for the young, that has always gone on.
To all this has to be added a small flow of openings-up of forbidden frontiers. Nudity on the stage and in films; the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality; the interlarding of TV plays and sketches with what used to be called “barrack-room language”; the recurrent arguments over pot and pornography, with the possibility that either or both may become legal in not too many years. If most people see little or nothing of these things at first hand, their existence as topics is probably enough to shock and to promote the conviction that we live in a society which has changed because its norms have broken down.
And that is just what has not happened. The norm of capitalist society is production for sale and profit, with all human activity either directed or inescapably conditioned by it. The permissive society is, above everything else, a commercial phase: an everybody’s-doing-it sales concept like high-speed gas or the cult of the white-enamel kitchen. The truth is seen in fact when aspects of permissiveness are used by respectable sounding firms whose executives probably go to church on Sundays and personally deplore the laxity of the young. The Electricity Boards, using one of the most provocative girl-pictures extant for advertising; the petrol ads with the girl and the phallic pump; all the incitements to buy which indicate instant sexual intercourse as reward for doing so.
Much of it is obvious enough. The paperback-book industry has had the jackpot rung for it by permissiveness. The theatre has thriven from it — even Shakespeare appears to have a fresh round now with nude Juliets and more literal interpretations of the bawdy bits. The cinema, which was near dying in the ’fifties, has had a new lease of life by becoming the vehicle for whatever wouldn’t do for family entertainment on TV. General Booth built a new Christian sect to popularity with the maxim “Why should the Devil have the best tunes?” A hundred years later, commerce has reconsidered the point and found randiness better than music.
But is there not at any rate a by-product in that people can nevertheless feel more free and be happier in their personal relationships, because barriers of convention are broken down? If there is, it is only marginal. Margaret Powell, in one of her books about servant life, remarks that one reason why working people felt guilty over sex was the conviction that something which was enjoyable and had not to be purchased must be wrong. The whole point of the commerce in permissiveness is to see that people do purchase it, as far as that can be made possible; and it is hard to see that improving the quality of life. As with the Beatle upsurge, emblems and even feelings of unconventionality are quickly appropriated for sale in the market. What happened to the Flower People? Their style and regalia made a dress-shop vogue, their most lasting effect is the floral shirts on Marks-and-Spencers’ counters.
Permissiveness is an awful word, if you think about it for only a moment. It means, literally, what is allowed. It assumes a society in which dispensations are made by “them”, areas of apparent licence permitted under watchful eyes: the complementary assumption has to be that the permission may be withdrawn at any time. That is, indeed, how most people see it. The common expression by someone who has, say, read a boldly-written book is: “Wonder it was allowed to be printed.” And the assumption is well-founded. The recent attacks on International Times and Oz show this clearly enough; neither publication is specially admirable, but both went beyond the permission for permissiveness. In some ways, Victorian society was more permissive than ours. Certainly no generation before the present one has been so pried and spied upon, its every movement noted and filed to underline the restrictive power of commerce and the State.
The things implied in the idea of a thoroughly permissive society are desirable. It is desirable that people should be free, both psychologically and socially, to find the fullest satisfactions; that responsibility and harmony should be the guides to conduct instead of moral sanctions and legal prohibitions. What has to be appreciated is that these states of affairs are dependent for realisation on the organisation of society as a whole. On one hand, it is not possible to create them within a society whose inherent tendencies are antithetical to freedom and responsibility. On the other, personal freedom is dependent on solid social conditions as much as on attitudes of mind.
Sexual freedom, for instance — since the permissive society is about that more than anything else. For all the emancipated talk, the exercise of freedom in this area of life really does demand a different bricks-and-mortar environment from the one most people get under the capitalist system. The minimum requirements are privacy, hot water, warmth and not being tired, and one can add more desirabilia like a comfortable bed and nice surroundings. Given the perfect partner and the most liberal frame of mind, one cannot do justice to lovemaking in a cold room where the neighbours hear every word and every creak of the bedspring and there is only the kitchen sink to wash in.
Thus, the road to freedom must be paved by a revolution in the way people live materially. And that is not all. There are the questions of the status of women in society; of racial and social barriers; of the continual money worries from which no working person is free, that impede expression and fulfilment in every sphere; and of the commodity-making and marketing of every human need. It has been the aim of drop-outs and reformers alike to meet these problems either personally or socially. That it cannot be done is evidenced not by argument, but by a look at things today. The answer can only be a transformation of society, changing the basis and the purpose on which it is organised.
Socialists have sympathy with all those who want the liberations a permissive society promises. The sympathy must be specially strong for the young people grasping this illusion of freedom to find themselves caught in the commercial bondage of capitalism after all. What they — we, all of us — need is a free society in which mankind can, for the first time, find fulfilment.